Gig work changes that could save lives

The New South Wales government is conducting an inquiry into the gig economy, modern versions of precarious work. There has been five deaths of food delivery workers over the last few months and this has increased media attention on the Inquiry and the issues raised.

On November 28 2020, Joellen Riley Munton, Professor of Law at the University of Technology, Sydney spoke on the Australian Broadcasting Corporations’ AM Program. Out of all the recent media discussions on gig work, Munton’s seemed the most targeted on occupational health and safety (OHS).

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The black sheep of safety leadership

Western Australia’s Industrial Manslaughter (IM) laws are now in effect. The same arguments for and against were posed in Parliament and outside as they were in Queensland and Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory well before that. The IM laws will face the same institutional hurdles to application and offer the same, nominal, deterrent effect.

But WA also prohibited insurance policies that cover the financial penalties applied by the Courts. Such policies may make good business sense in managing risk, but they also remove the pain and deterrence intended in the design and application of Work Health and Safety laws.

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A respect at work council is not enough

Australian discussions about workplace bullying and sexual harassment at the moment is in a mess indicating that insufficient work has been spent on clarifying what these terms mean, how the consequences are managed and whether the harm can be prevented.

In Parliamentary debate on the 2020 Budget, the Liberal Party’s Sussan Ley, said:

“The Morrison government will establish a respect at work council to provide practical support to employers and employees to prevent and address sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. We know it’s a barrier to women’s workforce participation, particularly for women working in male-dominated fields, and the government is committed to eradicating it from Australian workplaces.”

page 100, Hansard

Respect and countering incivility are important in building a workplace culture that is equitable and safe. However a discussion on sexual harassment of women by a Federal Government Minister in November 2020 rings hollow when the government has still to respond to a world-leading inquiry into sexual harassment in workplaces handed to them early this year.

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Accusations of cover-up at Senate Estimates

Safe Work Australia also attended Senate Estimates late last month. COVID19 is an unavoidable focus but we learnt that the latest fatality report will be released early this month, obtained more details on the response to the Boland Report, heard more about the gig economy but the climax was accusations of a coverup with Senator Deborah O’Neill (ALP) saying:

“Minister Porter… influenced Safe Work Australia—how independent; running for cover!”

page 65, Hansard
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What did we learn in Senate Estimates last week?

Australia has a process of accountability where Ministers and Heads of Government Departments and Authorities are required to answer attend Senate Estimates. Few people outside of the Canberra bureaucracy pay much attention to the occupational health and safety (OHS) information provided. Most media pay attention to disputes and statements that have a more general political appeal, but there is important information about workplace health and safety, such as an update of the progress on Marie Boland’s recommendations or the role and activity of Safe Work Australia (SWA).

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Truck driver death is relevant to all

Well before the push for Industrial Manslaughter laws was the occupational health and safety (OHS) offence of “reckless conduct”. A media report from the LaTrobe Valley Express recently showed how one employer’s neglect of basic safety practices and processes resulted in the death on 21-year-old Damien Taifer.

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Hoists and petards

Many on the Conservative side of Australian politics want to see Daniel Andrews, the Victorian Premier, fall, especially over the use of security guards in hotels used to quarantine returning travellers who may have had COVID19. Some of Andrews’ critics are being mischievous by linking the Industrial Manslaughter laws that his government introduced to his, and his Ministers’, accountability for COVID19 deaths linked to the hotels. The latest is Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz in Federal Parliament.

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